Two dozen congregations in 12 U.S. cities have reportedly opened their doors as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Because federal agents usually avoid arresting immigrants inside churches, sanctuary seekers often live inside the churches 24/7 and are cared for by congregation members.
But the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Fox News religious correspondent, said these churches are misguided.
“A lot of these liberal churches that harbor illegal immigrants who are criminals say they are following the example of Jesus,” Jeffress, pastor of a 12,000-member megachurch in Dallas, said during a “Fox and Friends” segment on Sunday. Instead, “they are following the Jesus of their imagination rather than the Jesus of the Bible,” he said.
“Jesus was not this wimpy little guy who walked around munching sunflower seeds and saying nice things to people,” Jeffress said. “The real Jesus of the Bible said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ That is: Obey the government.”
Jeffress was referring to a Bible story in which critics of Jesus ask him if it was right to pay taxes to the Roman government, which controlled Israel at that time. Jesus asked for a coin and, pointing out that Caesar's face was imprinted on it, said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
The Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of a sanctuary church in Tucson, Arizona, said Jeffress is taking the Bible verse out of context. Jesus' statement was a critique of Rome's imperial system and its claim that Caesar was a deity. Jesus was essentially saying that the government was not God, she said.
"In short, no one listening to Jesus would have heard this statement as a encouragement to pay taxes to the Roman government," Harrington told HuffPost. "In fact, they would have heard it at as a borderline if not outright seditious."
Harrington's Southside Presbyterian Church has so far offered sanctuary to two people. A man named Daniel Neyoy Ruiz lived in the church for more than 20 days before the authorities gave him a one-year reprieve from deportation. The church's current resident, Rosa Robles Loreto, has been living at the church since Aug. 7, 2014.
It's "really hard work with sleepless nights," Harrington said, but caring for Robles Loreto has taught her congregation what it really means to be Christian.
"We could argue a verse here and a verse there all day -- my question remains -- what is the message that is at the heart of the gospels? For us it is that God in God’s graciousness and love sent Jesus Christ to call us back to the command to love God and love our neighbor as [ourselves]," Harrington said. "For us in the borderlands, it would be an act of infidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ to turn our back on our undocumented neighbors and watch as their families are destroyed by the ill conceived, and frankly sinful deportation policies of our nation."
Jeffress’ comments came nearly one week after Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented Mexican laborer with a long criminal record, was charged with fatally shooting 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle on a pier in San Francisco. The incident reignited debates about the more than 200 “Sanctuary Cities” across the U.S. that have passed laws preventing local police from detaining suspects based only on requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The purpose of these laws is to stop ICE from rounding up undocumented immigrants with little criminal history, USA Today reports. The laws also help build trust between communities and local law enforcement officers.
The Rev. Ryan Eller, executive director of Define American, an advocacy campaign for undocumented immigrants, pointed out that Jesus, whose parents fled with him to Egypt to avoid persecution, was an undocumented immigrant. Eller wondered whether Jeffress' church would have taken Jesus in.
It's important to mourn Kate Steinle's death, Eller said, but it's dangerous to use it to broadly support obeying a broken immigration system.
"You can't talk about the Jesus of the Bible without also being honest about what the Bible says concerning how we are to treat immigrants," Eller said. "Congregations choosing to offer sanctuary are modeling the love and welcoming spirit of Christ. Those are actions we need more of, not less."